Navy probe looks again at alleged Tailhook role of Blue Angels leader


NORFOLK, Va. -- They only wanted him for his mind.

Navy Lt. Christopher P. Gates admitted under oath yesterday that he was the officer who received oral sex from a stripper during a Sept. 7, 1991, promotion party at the Las Vegas Hilton during the Tailhook Association convention. When he was called to Norfolk on May 28 of this year, he expected to face punishment for conduct unbecoming an officer.

Instead, Lieutenant Gates said yesterday, a string of meetings culminated in the Navy's top lawyer in the investigation's telling him they wanted information on someone. Lieutenant Gates' attorney, Mike Powell, said he and Lieutenant Gates were told by Capt. Jeff Williams: "We don't want you. We want Commander Stumpf."

The Navy has reopened investigations into the Tailhook activities of five officers. One is Cmdr. Robert E. Stumpf, 41, an F/A-18 pilot and unit commander who investigators think was in the room with Lieutenant Gates during the sex act but failed to stop it.

Commander Stumpf, who commands the Navy's prestigious Blue Angels flight demonstration team but has been temporarily removed from duty, said he was mistakenly identified by a

government witness as having seen the sex act. Now, he says, the Navy doesn't want to admit its mistake.

"I was a big fish," Commander Stumpf said, referring to his command position, "and they're not ready to throw me back yet."

Lieutenant Gates, like the other three officers who testified yesterday, had been given a grant of immunity from prosecution. But the most damning evidence any could provide on the hearing's second day placed Commander Stumpf in the room when two strippers arrived at the party to perform a private strip-tease in a private room at the Hilton.

None testified that Commander Stumpf was present when the (( sex act took place later. However, all who testified attested to Commander Stumpf's character, and gave him glowing marks.

Recently retired Rear Adm. William R. McGowen, once the chief of naval air training and Commander Stumpf's former boss, called Commander Stumpf's team leadership "sparkling." During the 1991 war with Iraq, Commander Stumpf's F/A-18 unit, Strike Fighter Squadron 83 out of Cecil Field, Fla., was stationed aboard the USS Saratoga. During the course of 22 strike missions from that aircraft carrier, Commander Stumpf earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses with valor, one of the nation's top combat awards. Commander Stumpf also commanded the unit at the time of the 1991 Tailhook convention.

A panel made up of one admiral and two captains is conducting the investigation. They will make recommendations to the Navy's Tailhook investigation authority, Vice Adm. J. Paul Reason, whose options range from dropping the case to bringing it to court-martial. The hearing is expected to conclude today.

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